Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Gold and Other Forgotten Facts About Signal Hill

     Though “black gold” would be discovered on Signal Hill in 1921, did you know that the “glittery stuff” was also found there in 1905?  In my research I’ve come across a number of interesting discoveries and “might have beens” about Signal Hill.  Here are a few of them.

Gold was found on Signal Hill in 1905.

Gold found on Signal Hill
     The years following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake had been difficult for Signal Hill real estate promoter George W. Hughes.  Following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, property sales in Southern California came to a virtual standstill.  Finances once available for development were funneled northward to rebuild the city.
     Hughes, a real estate agent, had purchased 35 acres on the summit of Signal Hill in September 1904 for $20,000.  In October 1904 he formed the Signal Hill Improvement Company, of which he was president, to develop the land and make it “one of the beauty spots of the coast.”   On May 25, 1905, Hughes placed the lots he had subdivided on the market. 
     The May 7, 1905 Los Angeles Herald reported:

“Another recent big thing for the beach is the platting of 150 acres on and around the top of Signal Hill, two miles north and east of the city. Signal Hill is 353 feet above the sea level, and from the summit a view of twenty-seven towns can be had. Much of the development and improvement work has been completed and soon the lots will be on the market. Lots are of uniform size, 60 x 130 feet. The prices will range from $500 to $1800 each. On the crown of the hill a space of four acres has been set apart for a park and the site for a big hotel. President G. V. Hughes, and Secretary F. A. Crowe are at the head of the Signal Hill Improvement Company having the Signal Hill enterprise in charge.”

     Opening day was a rainy one but still, the Los Angeles Herald reported (5/28/1905), over 500 people attended the opening and $60,000 was realized from sales. Hughes had made sure that Signal Hill “happenings” were prominently in the news. Much was going on at Signal Hill, according to the news reports funnel to the press by Hughes.  A vast gravel deposit (of the finest quality, the Evening Tribune reported) was discovered in February 1905 and an artificial stone factory was being planned in August 1905.  A trolley line up the hill was in the works in November 1905, but it later failed to materialize because of the steep grade up the hill.    But by 1910 development had slowed.  There had been growth as 13-year old Mable Anderson of the Burnett school, wrote to the Los Angeles Herald in January 1910.

 On the very top of Signal Hill is a very nice house which has a very nice yard. There are also 2 or 3 other little buildings. In the spring it is pretty and green and here there are a few wild flowers. Here and there in little ravines you will see some cactus growing.

     The “very nice house: Mable Anderson mentions belonged to George Hughes.  The sales brochure. Signal Hill: the most beautiful home site in Southern California, describes the home:

At the apex of the hill is located the palatial home of Mr. George W. Hughes, unquestionably one of the show places of Southern California. Facing the south, the mansion looks out upon the quiet and beauty of the ocean; commands a magnificent view of the city of Long Beach which lies at the very foot of this charming mountain retreat...

     But more than nice flowers and a few buildings were needed to keep the real estate market on Signal Hill alive.
     Coincidently, perhaps, an amazing discovery was unearthed on Signal Hill on September 21, 1910, on property owned by no other than George Hughes.  Hughes, convinced that there was gold in the west slope of Signal Hill, took a Los Angeles assayer to the site to pan for the valuable mineral.  To verify the claim Hughes asked Jonah Jones and James A. Miller to witness assayer Nelson in action.  Nelson proceeded to pan gold out of dirt taken from the side of a hole which had been dug 10 feet into the ground on Hughes’ property near Cherry Avenue.  The witnesses swore it had not been salted. The assayer confirmed gold was present, but went on to add that at this particular point there wasn’t much of it. Considerable excitement followed the announcement of the discovery, according to the Long Beach Daily Telegram. However, nothing more was heard of Hughes’ gold discovery after the initial article appeared in the press, and there are no records to indicate if sales in Signal Hill increased because of the possibility of gold. George Hughes was not one to give up.  If money wasn’t available for housing development why not build a university?

UCLA at Signal Hill?
UCLA being built in 1919. It could have been
on Signal Hill.

     In 1910 a campaign was started to establish a Southern branch of the University of California.  It was pointed out at the time that Los Angeles County alone had more high school students than San Francisco and Alameda Counties and that 25 per cent of the high school students of the State were in Los Angeles County.  Mark Keppel, then County Superintendent of Schools pointed out that the University of California had just made a request for $5 million to increase its facilities at Berkeley. He pointed out that if a Southern California branch were authorized, it would not be necessary to enlarge the institution at Berkeley. 
     George Hughes proposed Signal Hill as an ideal location for such an institution.  Garner Curran, President of the Los Angeles Federated Improvement Association, was asked to look at various locations; he agreed with Hughes that there was no better place than Signal Hill. On May 30, 1911, Hughes offered to sell 30 acres of land at Signal Hill, valued by him at $100,000 at a low figure. He also agreed to make a personal donation of $10,000, if Signal Hill was chosen as the site of the future University of California, Los Angeles.  Despite Mr. Curran reiterating his preference for the Signal Hill location, Westwood was chosen.
     Just think if UCLA had been built on Signal Hill instead of Westwood.  The revenue from oil in the 1920s and later could have paid most of the expenses of the entire UC system!

View of the Gods – The Trackless Trolley
This was the nation's first trackless trolley,
 built by Charles Spencer Mann in 1910 to promote vacation lots in Laurel Canyon.

     The Pacific Electric Company began the construction of a line up the Hill in 1906, but gave it up because the grade was too steep. In December 1910, our friend George Hughes, real estate promoter extraordinaire, convinced Signal Hill property owners that if the Pacific Electric couldn’t run trains up the Hill perhaps a trackless trolley system was needed.
     The plan called for busses equipped with 20-horsepower motors, capable of carrying a load of 3600 pounds. The motors would be heavy enough to take such a load to the summit of the Hill.  Electric lights were to be used throughout the 22-foot long, 6 foot wide cars, which would be able to hold 24 people.  The roof was to extend from the rear door to the dash, with a ladder either at the side or rear for access to the roof. Another detail according to historian Walter Case was that “the driver’s seat would be in a position back of the steering wheel, which would accommodate one person and would be trimmed with split leather or cushion and back trimmed with hair.” (Sun 12/3/1937)
     At this December 12, 1910, meeting George Hughes announced that a Los Angeles resident wanted to establish a telescope on the summit of the hill, also a lunch room, and, just possibly a dance floor. Hughes said he was willing to lease to the prospective developer a space of not more than 100x150 feet at any desirable point.
     But neither the trackless trolley nor the telescope pavilion became a reality.

Aerial Tram
     While the trackless trolley plan was being discussed another more spectacular idea was suggested to Hughes.  Los Angeles resident Fletcher E. Felts decided it was time to construct an aerial tram from Long Beach to Los Angeles and also to Pasadena. 
     His proposal was for what he called a “Suspended Auto Motor Railway,” consisting of a rail track from which would be hung cars that would have a clearance of at least 14 feet from the ground.  Towers which would provide supports for the track would be constructed “at intervals of whatever distance may be required.”
     The cars would be propelled by either electricity or gasoline and hang from wheels clamped to the rail. It would be possible said Mr. Felts, for the cars to climb almost any grade, but he stated that if the grade became as steep as 60 percent the use of cogs to prevent slipping would be advisable.
     On such a road, he maintained, a speed of two miles a minute could be obtained with no danger to the passengers. He estimated the trip from Long Beach to Los Angeles would be made in 15 minutes and that a ride from Long Beach to Pasadena would not take more than 25 minutes. Cars could be provided, he said, to carry from 20 to 100 passengers each, but he advised 50 passenger cars on the Long Beach-Los Angeles line.
     He told interested parties he had contracts by which the delivery of such cars here for the line would be assured. Such cars, he added, were then being operated in Germany. His holdings, he said were covered by 152 patents.
     The fact that the per-mile cost of the undertaking was estimated at from $20,000 to $50,000 depending on the character of the terrain on which the towers would have to be constructed contributed to the futility of Mr. Felts’ efforts to make Long Beach aerial-railway conscious.

       All of Hughes’ dreams about Signal Hill would have come true if the Hill hadn’t been so steep.  None other than Henry Huntington planned on building a large hotel costing no less than $100,000 on the summit, but he backed out when the Hill proved too steep for his electric railway.  The Los Angeles Herald (10/30/1904) reported that 115 acres of the Signal Hill tract would be open for development, while five acres would be reserved for the hotel. In addition fine gardens and many attractions were planned. But as this blog has shown, Hughes was not one to give up easily.  He lived to see the Hill transformed almost overnight when oil was discovered in 1921.  What would have happened to the hotel, university, and trackless trolley system if they had been built?  We will never know.